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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

‘It was a very tough period’: Italian antifascist MEP Ilaria Salis on her 15-month detention in Hungary

Ilaria Salis in court
Ilaria Salis in court in Budapest in May. Photograph: Márton Mónus/Reuters

An Italian activist who was released from house arrest in Hungary after she was elected as an MEP has spoken of her gratitude to the voters who gave her back her freedom and vowed to continue to fight for the rights of prisoners and against the rise of neofascist groups in Europe.

The case of Ilaria Salis, a teacher from Monza, near Milan, sparked anger and diplomatic protests in Italy when she brought to court in Hungary in chains in January. She had been arrested nearly a year earlier at a counter-demonstration to a neo-Nazi rally in Budapest and charged with three counts of attempted assault and membership of an extreme leftwing organisation – charges that carry a potential prison sentence of 11 years.

The charges, which she denies, have not been dropped but she was granted immunity from prosecution after her election as an MEP for the Green and Left Alliance in Italy, which won 6.8% of the vote in the European parliamentary elections in early June. She returned to her home town on 17 June, her 40th birthday.

“I thought of many possible outcomes but what actually happened exceeded my imagination,” she told the Guardian in her first interview with a publication based outside Italy. “I believe that many of those who voted for me did so because they are sincerely concerned about the advance of the far right, and in part wanted to express it by supporting a candidate openly anti-fascist.”

She cautioned that her case was not over. “In reality, I hoped it would all end much sooner,” she said. “To be precise, it is still too early to talk about an outcome, because the trial has only been suspended for the duration of the term as a member of the European parliament, so for five years. Furthermore, the Hungarian authorities could request the revocation of immunity.”

Salis spent 15 months in pre-trial detention, in a prison that she said was infested with rats and bugs, not being allowed to wash for days at a time and facing a lack of urgent medical care. She was released in May to house arrest as her trial began.

She became a figure of hatred for extremists, with a mural painted on a wall in Budapest imagining her death by hanging, and far-right militants on Telegram saying they wanted to put her in a wheelchair.

“It was a very tough period, of course, an experience that put me to the test, and I haven’t fully recovered yet,” she said. “The possibility of such a long sentence, completely disproportionate to the accusations, scared me and still scares me a lot. I remember when my parents came to visit me, they wondered if they would still be alive 10 years later.

“If there is a positive aspect, however, it is that I found a great strength within me that allowed me to survive in the darkest moments. A strength constantly nourished by the solidarity I felt was there and growing outside those walls.”

“The love of those who care about me and those who supported me even without knowing me helped me resist and was my strength. This feeling is undoubtedly immensely greater than the hatred. I was fortunate to have a supportive community around me and it is really important to ensure that no one is left alone.”

Media reports in Italy have suggested Salis was caught up in demands from the Hungarian government to make her extradition conditional on Rome’s support for Hungary in the EU. In a previous interview with the Guardian, her father said he feared her case was being be exploited not only in Hungary but also in Italy.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and the leader of the far-right League party, repeatedly criticised Salis and alleged she was part of a group that in 2017 had damaged a gazebo used by the party in Monza. For almost the first year of her detention, however, until she was brought to court in chains, her case was little known in her home country.

“In the detention conditions in which I found myself, I could not have a real perception of these dynamics, but only sensations,” she said. “Later I realised that my situation, when it started to receive significant media attention, was ambivalent. Having a strong political connotation, on one hand there was the aspect of protection during daily life in prison, which improved – for example, from that moment on I could see a doctor, the guards’ attitude became respectful, the cell was less crowded, and so on. On the other hand, I feared that I could be used as a sort of bargaining chip, for purposes and interests that went beyond my situation.”

Salis said the Italian government could have done more regarding her case. “I couldn’t help but notice the terrible attitude of the League party, but it didn’t surprise me,” she said. “After all, this attitude clearly summarises the lack of vision and political proposal of this party, whose main intent seems to be sowing hatred. Simply put, I believe they don’t have the stature to deal decently with serious issues.”

She intends to use her position as an MEP to campaign for prisoners’ rights. “I intend to continue the fight for the rights of prisoners in Europe, focusing particularly on prisons in Italy and Italian people detained abroad because those are situations where I can have a greater impact,” she said.

In response to those who may think her candidacy was just a way to get out of jail, Salis said she was already speaking out and that values she described as “solidarity and equality” would inform her politics.

“In Italy I have already begun to speak out on the issue of housing, the housing crisis, and high rents, which in the city where I live, Milan, represents a very serious social issue. I will want to do this at the European level as well.”

She said antifascism must be a “collective responsibility”. “My commitment will be aimed at immediate action against the operations of neo-Nazi and neofascist organisations, as well as in the long run improving the material conditions of people’s lives and promoting a new popular antifascist culture.

“If there is a lesson we should have learned from the European 20th-century experience of nationalism and Nazism, it is that we cannot afford to leave any space for these ideologies.”

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